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Shedding light on ice pack application

Research provides additional information about impact on muscles, joints

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Applying cold to the body following a severe injury has been common practice for generations, but opinions on whether ice application improves range of motion or influences strength have been conflicting. Now, new ​research confirms ice bags are a powerful tool for athletic trainers and other health care professionals, especially those who work in a sports medicine setting.

The multistate study, released last month, sheds additional light on the benefits of cold therapy in increasing a person's range of motion.

"It also gives us a better understanding of how to provide treatments for patients who have restrictions in their range of motion," Blaine Long, associate professor of athletic training, said.

Long collaborated with fellow experts from the University of Nebraska and Oklahoma State University to expand what we know about the use of cold application on muscles and joints. The study was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

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Researchers on the yearlong study worked with 35 people. Participants were selected based on their health and participation in low- to moderate-intensity workouts up to three times per week. Bags of crushed ice were secured directly to the skin on various parts of the lower leg and ankle for 30 minutes at a time. Participants were then assessed on their range of motion and strength through a series of movements and stretches.

The results verified there was no negative impact to a person's range of motion by applying ice ​to a muscle or joint. In fact, a person's leg range of motion and strength increased when ice was applied to the back of the lower leg. Ankle range of motion also increased when ice bags were applied to the ankle joint and leg muscles.

The study results apply to ice bags only. They do not confirm the effectiveness of cold gel, chemical cool packs or other household solutions, like applying a bag of frozen peas.

Long says the research is exciting news in sports medicine, but it also has even deeper implications for how practitioners think about treating other issues involving both joints and muscles.

"Many of us  at one time ​ were taught that treatments applied directly to the skin for this length of time can lead to frostbite or shouldn't be performed with exercise or stretching, as they may cause muscle damage," said Long. "This study just helps us confirm that this information is incorrect and our level of understanding has evolved."

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